People under stress are often told to exercise because it will help reduce stress. Many don’t make the choice to keep or start being active because they don’t understand the medical mechanisms that do help calm down minor stress, anxiety or depression. For those folks resisting any form of exercise, be aware that there is sound medical evidence that being active actually causes physiological changes that benefit the mind.
There’s a terrific line in the film Legally Blonde where Reese Witherspoon defends her favorite aerobics instructor who is on trial for murder. She reasons that exercises raises endorphins, which make you happy, “and happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.” While scientists and doctors may not be able to support her conclusion, Reese’s character is right in some respects. The brain does release endorphins, special neurotransmitters that have been shown to elevate mood, thereby diminishing stress.
Endorphins act similarly to opiates. You may have heard the term “runner’s high.” Endorphins released when being active also cause a release of dopamine, which is associated with the brain’s pleasure centers. In fact people with social anxiety frequently have low levels of dopamine. Release of dopamine can reward us if we are being active regularly because a feel good sensation caused by dopamine helps reinforce our desire to keep exercising.
Being active also blocks the release of stress hormones. In particular, cortisol is known to be a cause of additional stress, and accumulation of fat especially around the stomach. It can slow down our metabolic rate, making us more overweight, which may be a source of stress. Slowing down the metabolic rate may also make us feel more tired, more depressed, and more anxious.
The benefits of being active can be slightly mitigated if you’re choosing activities that you absolutely hate. Instead, try to focus on exercises that you enjoy. If you love dancing, take jazz, ballroom or jazzercise classes, or take your favorite partner out regularly to dance parties. Ice skate or ski if you love it, or even ride horses. Don’t expect that a disagreeable exercise will be as beneficial in reducing stress as one that you enjoy.
The exercise that most people can do, that is the cheapest and one of the best, is walking. If you’re feeling really stressed, take a walk out your front door and try to walk at a quick pace. Walk for 15 minutes in one direction before returning home. That gives you 30 minutes of exercise, at little cost to yourself except for time spent.
While being active helps reduce mild stress, if you find that regular activity alone is not helping to elevate mood, consider a visit to a doctor. People with high levels of anxiety or depression may be suffering from chemical imbalances that can be remedied with medication. If you do need medication, don’t refrain from activity. People who suffer from major depression, anxiety disorder, or mood disorders may be more effectively treated when medical treatment like therapy and medication are combined with exercise.
Lastly, do be sure to check with your physician before beginning any type of exercise routine. If you haven’t been active in a long time, you want to make sure you’re given specific instructions on which exercises will be good for you, and which to avoid. Start slow, if it’s been a while. If you push too hard in the beginning, injury could keep you from exercising, thus, increasing your stress.